For years, the idea of school choice meant parents pulling up stakes to move closer to a nicer school, or sink thousands of dollars into a private one.
But state officials are gearing up for a heated debate on whether to hand certain students taxpayer dollars to attend the private, public or religious school of their choice, without forcing parents to change their address or raid their children’s college fund.
What a voucher program would look like in Tennessee is still up in the air as a Republican-leaning group of education experts appointed by Gov. Bill Haslam irons out details of a plan they expect to recommend to the governor after the November election.
But what a voucher program would mean to parents will likely depend on the family’s income, if Tennessee follows suit with other voucher-friendly states, said Ron Zimmer, associate professor of public policy and education in the Peabody College at Vanderbilt University.
Most of the 17 voucher programs across 11 other states offer so-called opportunity scholarships to students under a certain level of income relative to the poverty level, he said.
“For families above those thresholds, it may mean very little,” said Zimmer, who studies school choice systems across the country and sits on the governor’s Opportunity Scholarship Task Force.
“For students below that threshold, their families should have greater options, to the extent that there are private schools nearby and to the extent their private school chooses to participate in the voucher program,” he said.
Take Wisconsin for example, the first state to embrace vouchers back in 1990.
The state started out offering vouchers to students qualifying for free or reduced lunch — what boils down to an annual income of $42,643 for a family of four today. State officials this year extended the program to the middle class by making it available to children in families with income at 300 percent of poverty level, which can be as high as $76,800 for a family of four with married parents.
“Vouchers give families options and it gives them access to private schools they wouldn’t have access to,” said Paul DiPerna, research director for the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice which favors voucher programs.
Vouchers would allow parents to take a portion of per-pupil funding — roughly $9,000 between local, state and federal dollars set aside for each student — and use those dollars towards tuition at another school, namely a private one. Officials are still sorting out how much money to cough up for each student enrolled through the voucher program. In Davidson County, that could mean $3,136 per student in state money alone, according to the Department of Education.
The main idea behind the push is to make private school more accessible. The plan would also allow parents to use that money to switch their students to another public school, although they already can do that in Davidson County regardless of income. Parents can also use the voucher to send their students to a charter school, but that is also doable under current law.
The voucher idea is controversial on Capitol Hill, even among a strong Republican majority that managed to endorse that plan in 2011 in the Senate but failed to muster enough support in the House.
“At this point, I wouldn’t be surprised either way. At this point, I don’t know if we even have the appetite for this,” said Chris Barbic, a high-ranking member of the governor’s task force that still has a handful of weighty program recommendations to make.
Critics worry the practice would take tax dollars out of already financially strapped schools and skim off the students with involved parents from the school district, leaving behind students who need the most support.
But signs so far point to a legislature warming to adopting a so-called voucher program in 2012 if the governor gives his blessing.
The task force is still firming up its recommendations for the program and expects to meet Nov. 13. A plethora of details are still on the table, such as how much the vouchers would be worth, whether to launch the program statewide and who should pay for transportation. Other key decisions include whether to restrict the program to children from low-income families or to focus on those attending failing schools, and whether the state should kick off the program in time for the 2013 school year.